Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

mad max guitar guySomewhere amidst humanity’s collective unconscious lies The Wasteland. Sand. Emptiness. Industrial collapse. An absence of life metaphored through lack of water or greenery. In the 80s, George Miller fashioned Mad Max’s desolate universe, surrounded by cold war paranoia and the potential for weaponized destruction of the earth, and it immediately lodged itself into the apocalyptic zeitgeist: other movies, books, video games are like to feature a variation of Miller’s wasteland. In 2015, the franchise inexplicably rejuvenated, we now fear environmental destruction instead of the atom bomb but the result is essentially the same. Neither nuclear winter nor catastrophic glacial melt creates the setting of Mad Max — but it’s how we envision a world dead, the unintended-but-obvious endgame of carelessness & greed.

Each of the Mad Max movies is tonally different. I know because I watched all three again in anticipation of Fury Road. The original (1979) has the captivating quality that all very early projects by talented directors have. Its vision is central and palpable. The apocalypse is background to an interpersonal tale that flangs outward to include a psychopathic biker gang. The violence is sparse and devastating, the aesthetic unmistakable. Road Warrior (1981) follows and Max has turned from family man to brooding, reluctant hero. Apocalypse has arrived. Gangs fight on the road for any scrap of gas to keep driving. The plot revolves around an enclave surrounding a tanker full of gas and their plan of escape, beyond the second coming of psycho biker gangs in bondage gear. Last comes Beyond Thunderdome (1985), which takes the series into extra campy, goofy territory. Mel Gibson’s Max is more of a grunting, disoriented non-hero. Tina Turner is resplendent as the villain. It’s kind of hilarious. Those four years changed a great deal.

So what is Fury Road? Non-stop action, that’s what. The main characters drive a weaponized, armored rig through the desert with an army of mad hooligans in hot pursuit. Then they turn around and do it again. There’s rare stoppages to breathe and they do not last long. The bondage attired goons of the 80s are replaced by white skinned bald guys who hunker and scrabble and leap like goblins & orcs (WETA workshop, masterminds behind Lord of the Rings costuming and imagery, were at work here). I missed the sexually deviant leather-clad-assless-chapped-codpieced cadre of the previous movies but there’s hints of weirdness and humor here and there. The action is tight & smart — not nonsensical blockbuster explosions and quick shots. Tension is engineered through unique situations: take for an example two racing vehicles, both with a passenger on the hood frantically siphoning gas and spitting it into the engine to stay ahead of the other. Or the Crouching Tiger-esque fight where Max engages Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in fistfight while chained to a corpse he must keep navigating around/with.

It’s exhilarating. I haven’t seen a great action flick in years, it seems. I missed some of the small scale quirkiness of early Mad Max’s, but I am also glad this movie struck its own path and avoided a nostalgic Thunderdome rehash. The movie unapologetically blames everyone — the good guys, the bad guys, the in-betweens, the audience — for the destruction of the world. There’s a scene with some characters screaming “You killed the world!” at another character while he denies it. We exult in the action and violence of the movie, revel in our own projected destruction. It’s the villains people dress up as. Fury Road doesn’t so much warn us of a potential future; it shows us what we think it looks like and asks us to celebrate along with it.

Quick thoughts: Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV

ac3and4 I finished Assassin’s Creed III months ago. I had too many thoughts. The effort involved vs. finished review seemed a poor investment. The world does not need an AC3 thesis.Then I finished Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which was fun, but ultimately kind of bland and not worth writing a review over. So, in an effort to record my experience during all those hours without getting excessive, I am limiting each game to one paragraph each.

Assassin’s Creed III: AC3 stars ‘Connor’*, a half british, half Mohawk man who Forrest Gumps his way through the American Revolution. It’s the least interesting historical period/event from a time-travel tourism perspective — I grew up in New England and these stories were drilled into me ad nauseum, via elementary school and cultural osmosis. The missions are too tightly scripted and controlled since they need to match precise events the player is already familiar with. The frontier stuff — running around on trees, hunting animals, building a homestead, sailing around on my ship — was my favorite part of the game; I could leave the Boston and New York pieces. A Native American protagonist started off promising but devolved rapidly when the plot and character motivation turned to utter nonsense. There’s a major turnaround late where it turns out Connor’s village was destroyed as a result of George Washington’s decisions — but the game is too afraid to denounce the patriots (until after the credits are over) and Conner basically doesn’t react and continues to support the revolution.

*Connor’s real name is a complex and difficult to say in its entirety for a non-native speaker. This leads to a ridiculous scene where Connor’s (black) mentor says something like “Better to pass as an Italian or Arab than an Indian… let’s call you Connor.”

Assassin’s Creed IV: To the golden age of piracy! The Caribbean is beautifully realized here. The plot and world adheres to real history but is elastic enough to be unfamiliar. Piloting a ship is fun, as is island exploration. For a while. The game starts to get repetitive right quick. Boarding ships is exactly the same every time. There’s a bajillion collectibles spread across the world, which dampens discovery and also makes no sense: Why are there 50+ treasure chests per square mile?? Not very pirate-y. Edward, the protagonist, is yet another rogue with a conscience. Feels like Ubisoft got real safe character-wise after Connor wasn’t received well (I thought he was great until the plot stopped making sense). Early in the game, Edward escapes bondage and steals his own ship (the Jackdaw) with a black man and his future first mate, Adewale. Adewale allows Edward to assume ownership of the Jackdaw on account of the color of his skin — ironic that the ownership answer of 1715 doubles as the reason a black man can’t be the main character of a video game in 2013.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (Part 1)

annals“The world which we inhabit is composed of materials not of the earth which was the immediate predecessor of the present but of the earth which. . .had preceded the land that was above the surface of the sea while our present land was yet beneath the water of the ocean. Here are three distinct successive periods of existence, and each of these is, in our measurement of time, a thing of indefinite duration. . .the result, therefore, of this physical inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”
– James Hutton, 1726-1797

I like to think of the world in other eras. The alien sweep of Pangaea. The frigid silence of glaciers blanketing the earth. Dinosaurs trudging through the the mud. Deserts that were swamps, mountains that were oceans. The incomprehensibility of deep time and the eons where no life stirred on earth. Or the sheer cataclysm of the great extinctions that wiped out most of cambrian life and later, the dinosaurs and their ilk. It evokes a sense of crushing awe. There’s a comfort in human insignificance, a giddiness to the unbelievably small time we’ve existed in earth’s history.

And, as John McPhee elucidates in this behemoth, there’s a poetry in geology absent in other sciences, save perhaps astrology. Metaphor is absolutely required.

Annals of the Former World is not just one book — it’s a collection of five books. Each book selects a different part of the US to focus on, generally tied to Interstate-80. I’m only about halfway through. I plan to expound upon the first two and a half books and write of the remainder at a later date.

 

Basin and Range

Basin and Range takes place in Nevada — the contiguous mountain ranges and intermediate basins that make up most of the state. At one point, western Nevada was the coastline of America, and it’s the prime suspect for where the country will tear in half in the distant future, first creating a facsimile of the Red Sea and later becoming an ocean in its own right. This is the future of the Red Sea and the past of the Atlantic Ocean, which began as a rent between conjoined North America and Africa.

McPhee’s journey takes him along I-80 through towns like Battle Mountain and Lovelock and Winnemucca. I’ve driven this road myself, from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, and it was fascinating to see the history, both human and geological, detailed for this region, which I mostly found to be dusty towns whose primary feature was impoverishment. Having a real-life experience of the land is extremely helpful, but even then I can typically only grasp the macro-level of the geology that McPhee is describing. The book is written for any audience and the history, the big picture descriptions of past and future oceans and mountains, the basins and ranges thrust up and down throughout the earth are clear. The smaller scale descriptions of sandstone and quartz and which era they came from are a bit muddy for me. I can start glazing over when there is too much discussion of the finer points of sediment deposits.

In between descriptions of the journey, the text is peppered with history lessons on how geology grew as a science — the great revolutions of geologists rejecting the notion of biblical time (4-6 thousand year old earth) and the Great Flood, which people took as outright fact through much of western history. Later, the theory of plate tectonics. Or the many missteps in between. In addition, McPhee works as a biographer to the geologists he invites on his journeys. Basin and Range features a man named Deffeyes, who is characterized a bit like an obsessed mad scientist, with poofy hair protruding from the sides of his hat. Deffeyes is outfitted with a deep understanding of the actual basin and range and a plan to strike rich by excavating old silver mines that birthed small towns in Nevada and later ruined them when the silver ran out… but only for their 18-19th century technology, not for today’s.

 

In Suspect Terrain

The subsequent book is significantly weaker, at least from the perspective that I value. It takes place in Pennsylvania and parts of New York or New Jersey — states I’ve spent very little time in and thus areas that I can’t visualize from my own memories. There’s a lot of minutia and not a lot of history. McPhee’s companion for this portion of the trip just isn’t as interesting or eccentric as the ones in the preceding or following texts. Her big thing is that she is a skeptic — the theory of plate tectonics revolutionized the science, but geologists start using it as the answer to everything, which clearly cannot be the case.

I’ll be honest and say I’ve already forgotten large swathes of In Suspect Terrain.

 

Rising from the Plains

I am only halfway through book three and it’s already my favorite thus far. It chronicles Wyoming, a place I’ve never visited but would like to. The Rocky Mountains used to be submerged in earth (sand, dirt, mud, rock), and before that they were at the bottom of the sea. There’s marine life buried in the rock, as well as tiny jaws and teeth to three toed horses, the first tiny predecessors to our modern day mounts. McPhee builds on the descriptive prose of the first two books and I can follow the lay of the land and its intricacies with far greater acuity. Or maybe I just got better at reading.

Interspersed with the geology is the history of a family. McPhee’s companion for this trip is David Love. His mother was a Wellesley graduate who became a school teacher in distant Wyoming in 1905, still the wild west, with students who had to travel sixty miles through devastating cold to reach the schoolhouse. She was an excellent writer and her captivating journals are excerpted throughout. Her husband and David’s father was a Wyoming cowboy, who spend at least one seven year stretch sleeping without a roof over his head, and was a miraculously successful homesteader in turn-of-the-century Wyoming, a land which is very cold much of year, reaches fifty below zero in winter, and has winds so powerful and unrelenting that houses with closed doors and windows fill with snow through cracks in the walls and keyholes.

The local and family history and how it entwines with the geology is masterful and I look forward to charging onward, both through millions of years of geological time and the infant history of inhospitable Wyoming.

 

If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Mieville

threemomenetsexplosionWant to read about sinister icebergs appearing afloat in the skies of London? It’s here. Long ago sunk ships forging legs and shambling out of the ocean? Got that too. Socialist dust particles out to radicalize your world? Read all about it. People obsessed with wearing hollowed out, decaying animal heads? Yep.

China Mieville has mastered the weird, the bizarre, the monstrous joke. A story about a terror lurking in the depths of a remote lake is not going to turn out to be another Lovecraft pastiche, but instead finds its influence in an obscure byzantine torture ritual involving a sack, a dog, a cockerel, and an ape. Even when the premise is extra wacky — therapist-assassins out to assure their client’s happiness at all costs — the tone of the story remains deadly serious and only only occasionally falls into ha-ha it was all a joke!

Most of the short story collections I have read in recent years are short, a few interesting pieces that may have been published elsewhere. You finish in a day or two. It feels kind of cheap. Three Moments of an Explosion is hefty by comparison and I appreciate it. You can really sink into the depths of this man’s imagination. There’s recurrent themes and motifs. There’s a running gag with prose movie trailers appearing at a few different places in the book — speedy, crawling zombies that hunt regular zombies, people manufactured with metal poles protruding from their backs, and so on. It faintly reminded me of the eponymous interviews in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. There’s a craft to the arrangement of stories!

If the collection has a weakness, it’s that a few of the longer stories start to get samey. They generally start with a character who has pre-existing knowledge of the weird happening that will be central to the story; we slowly gain context and can make sense of the earlier bits; The baffling horror takes shape; then the story wraps up without really giving a complete answer to the mystery. There is exceedingly low amounts of resolution in this collection, and this works better in some stories than others — you don’t always need a conclusion but sometimes the story feels unsatisfying without one. There’s a story about aliens discovered in a volcanic island that builds and then just… ends.

China Mieville is a singular voice in sci-fi/fantasy/horror. I think this is about seventy percent due to his imagination, which is both fresh and inviting. You don’t know what to expect, but you know it will be strange. The remaining thirty percent is craft — he’s a smart writer with a handle on prose that most genre writers either don’t have or don’t try to achieve. The language & tone are ambitious. The blockiness of language present in his early novels is greatly diminished. There’s occasional times where I had to reread a paragraph because it wasn’t quite clear what happened, but this is minor in comparison to the devilishly affected imagery sprinkled throughout each story, or the slowly emerging black humor. The man also has a prodigious vocabulary. I learned some oddly specific words. Take peristalsising on:

the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wavelike movements that push the contents of the canal forward.

Yum.

 

Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for hooking me up early.

 

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin (2015, From Software)

dark souls 2 scholar

So I played Dark Souls II again.

Scholar of the First Sin is a re-release for current-generation consoles with several improvements, especially if like me you didn’t play any of the expansion content that was released as paid add-ons for the original. There’s marginal graphical upgrades that are barely noticeable since even improved it does not look like a new Xbox One game. The meaningful changes, I shall endeavor to classify below:

Lore-wise, the game offers some augments to the existing narrative. ‘Narrative’ is a loose term when referring to Dark Souls since it barely has a plot and its lore is driven on atmosphere, item descriptions, and creepy and mysterious happenstance. The titular Scholar follows suit, when he erupts out of a bonfire (checkpoint) partway through the game as a sort of fleshy-hairy-slimy thing that speaks/gurgles. Aldia, a personage briefly mentioned in the base game (there’s an estate named after him and you get the idea he was experimenting and conjuring up monstrosities) will pop up at various points and pontificate on the responsibilities of a true monarch, and the main character’s suitability as such. He also shows up as a final-final boss fight after the previous last boss. It’s an okay addition but not much to write home about.

The enemy and item placement has been rebalanced. Enemies appear where they did not before. Some are removed. Some behave differently (carry a torch and watch spiders skitter away in fear). This mostly succeeds — you get key items at smarter times, there’s a few zones like No Man’s Wharf which totally embrace the neglected torch-carrying mechanic of the base game to great effect. The newbie areas are made slightly less devastating. Others changes are dubious. Heide Knights were found in the base game in unique locations — for instance, sitting with their back against a tree, unstirring and contemplative. You had to attack them first. Now they’re just another enemy wandering a different area. There’s some baffling changes like removing nearly all of an enemy unique to the Shaded Ruins — armored lion knights — in favor of semi-transparent soldiers who are difficult to see and cannot be targeted with auto lock on.

But the real meat of the changes, which isn’t a change at all if you bought the downloadable content as it was released, is the three new areas of the game.

 

brume

Brume Tower (Crown of the Old Iron King)

Adjoining the Iron Keep of the first game, a castle that literally sunk and collapsed into a volcano, is Brume Tower, which shares some of the architecture and look of the main structure. It’s an entirely vertical level, which is very cool. You’re generally climbing down, and once you turn on the ‘elevators’ (giant impressive stone statues that go up and down), you’re up-down-down-up-down-etc.

What you’ll find, other than new, more difficult enemies and environmental puzzles, is some kind of misshapen, imprisoned woman, huddled amidst her extra limbs. You’ll hear her moaning from a distance and she’ll be trying to kill you or lending your enemies her benefice (healing them, resurrecting them, powering them up). If you’re armed with a consumable item called a smelter wedge, you can drive it into her heart and pick up a fragment of the soul of ‘Nadalia, Bride of Ash’. All 12 gets you the full soul. This is key because all of the new areas involve a Queen and a King and a fallen Kingdom. All of the queens have names similar to the Queen of Drangleic and main-game last boss, Nashandra. As you play through each new area, you start to feel there is some kind of space-time hyjinx going on with the same story playing out in other lands with different-but-the-same players.

The bosses of Brume are difficult — potentially the hardest in the entire game. Not beasts or demons, just lone swordsmen with quick and complicated movements.

 

shulva

Shulva, the Sanctum City (Crown of the Sunken King)

I wanted to like trap-filled Shulva. You descend even further than the depths of The Gutter from the main game to an expansive, ancient mesoamerican-looking city. There’s a dragon flying around crashing into things and you just know you’re gonna have to do him in (you do). But mostly it just annoyed me.

All of the new areas crank up the difficulty. In base Dark Souls II, if you hit an enemy that doesn’t have a shield up, they have a decent chance to flinch (based on the strength of the attack) and have their attack or movement interrupted. Most enemies in Shulva do not have this feature. So what could have been tense fights on precarious stone bridges hanging over the abyss devolves into ‘get off the fucking bridge’ because the enemy has all the advantages.

For such a cool set piece on entry, you do not really interact with the Sanctum City much. Mostly you run around on its rooftops, or drop into a few upper rooms, all with the same drab blank-wall, square look. There’s switches you can activate to raise and lower buildings, but I found this quite humdrum. The place is loaded with traps too; maybe I’m just a gigantic baby but I just found these cheap and annoying. Yeah, I could have examined every brick in the floor to see the trigger for the killer spike-protruding walls that were about to instantly murder me on the next flight of stairs, but that’s just not the sort of patience I like to have to test. Wah wah.

The bosses are pretty cool though. I do like a good dragon.

 

loyce

Frozen Eleum Loyce (Crown of the Ivory King)

Last is the frozen fortress of Eleum Loyce. It wraps up the story, in part because it’s the only one with a friendly rather than antagonist queen, who explains via dialogue why Eleum Loyce is a frozen wasteland and where she came from. It’s cryptic, but it’s there!

This area is the best tuned, difficulty-wise. Enemies are dangerous but fair. The environmental hazard here is the poor visibility with snow-and-wind blowing in your face whenever you’re outside. Halfway-ish through, you can trigger the melting of much of the ice in the level, meaning you can return to areas frozen over before and open chests or access new areas. It’s kind of cool, but it’s really simple in design — it doesn’t completely change the level, just a few different paths which starts to make the repetition of going through areas you’ve already traversed a bit grating.

The level builds to the boss fight by asking you (just kidding; it doesn’t ask — you have to figure it for yourself) to recruit several Loyce Knights who stayed loyal to the king, to fight on your side in a showdown boss fight versus the knights who did not.


Anyway. More Dark Souls is always good.

The Creator by Mynona

thecreatorOK, I’m done. I will no longer be suckered into buying unheralded classics from various points in the 20th century that happened to be suffering in obscurity until, just now, a small press managed the painstaking task of reviving it and translating it into english.

The inside flap of The Creator says

Mentioned in his day in the same breath as Kafka, Mynona, aka Salomo Friedlaender was a–

Let’s stop here for a second with this wonderfully ambiguous sentence. Mentioned in the same breath as Kafka? I’m sure such breaths were:

Salomo Friedlaender and Franz Kafka are both writers.

or

Salomo Friedlaender is not nearly as good a writer as Franz Kafka.

Anyway, on with the blurb:

Mynona, aka Salomo Friedlaender was a perfectly functioning split personality: a serious philosopher by day and a literary absurdist by night.

A serious 19th century German philosopher who wrote satirical fantasy tales by night? Sounds fun! But this Jekyll &Hyde description is pure fraud. The Creator is barely fiction — it’s just a short tale to promote the philosophy of a Kant disciple named Ernst Marcus. To wit, here’s a monologue from one of the professor characters in the story:

Consider the work of the Kantian Ernst Marcus! This estimable epistemological theorist proves with convincing acuity that sensory perception does not only ensue as a consequence of the inward-directed affect of external objects on our brain, but also emanates with equal force from the brain outward toward those objects. An ethereal sensory stream surges from our body, our brain, and in particular, from our optical nerve center, outward into the world around us, all the way to the Sun, thus also to the reflected Sun in the mirror.

So our brains are beaming sensory perception back at the sun. Okay. This could be an interesting philosophy to explore in a novella. But here it is not.

The actual plot has a solitary man meet a much younger woman and start dreaming of each other and this turns out to involve some mad-scientist-like old man (the woman’s uncle/father) who espouses the above philosophy, and has a magic mirror ready to demonstrate it (poorly). It’s boring, not particularly well written, and without charm. Then the story repeats. The Creator wraps up and there’s a second short story following it that tells almost exactly the same story. Younger woman, misunderstood man, old man with a magic mirror. Kant/Ernst Marcus monologue. Both stories have the exact same conclusion — man and woman merge into some pure non-sexual angelic being. It’s baffling.

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2) by Ann Leckie

ancillaryswordThe end of book one left Breq, former ship AI turned human soldier, in command of her own ship and departing the capital of the empire and its nascent civil war en route to the recently annexed tea-growing planet of Athoek. On the space station orbiting Athoek, Breq uncovers widespread corruption. People are living in a subterranean undergarden and technically ‘don’t exist’. There’s imperial forces acting highly suspicious. Tea magnates jockeying for position. Something called the ‘Ghost gate’, a doorway to a supposedly haunted solar system. It’s a smaller, tighter story. It hits its action beats. There’s a panoramic set piece set up early in the story and you just know the final showdown is going to play out there.

Leckie has grown as a writer in a short period of time. The prose is functional and rarely awkward, over descriptive, or murky. While married to Breq’s first person viewpoint, there is an in-narrative cheat that allows other perspectives: Breq, along with her entire crew, is hooked up to her ship. So she can monitor the thoughts and activities of several of the other main characters. It sounds kind of silly but it works. Especially when weaved together; Breq might be trying to listen to an important conversation while three other characters are amid actions that are of immense interest to both Breq and the reader.

Flaws from book one remain, but slightly improved. The heavy handedness of the modern day class politics… has, uh, less heavy hands. It’s still there in spades: the underclass living in the worst and most dangerous area of the station. The immigrant workers forced into the tea fields with no real recourse to get out, regardless of state sponsored non-solutions that allow everyone else to maintain their conscience. It ties into the story a little smoother this time around. Indeed, it only really took me out of the novel when it wrapped up so easily and with such obvious solutions on Breq’s part. It feels kind of cheap to showcase real world problems and then answer them with such easy fixes that would not work (or last) in real world situations.

The secondary characters are still not very good. It’s hard to fathom how a book succeeding on the strength of a first person viewpoint can somehow fail at everyone else. There’s a new character who is seventeen years old and she’s written like how a fourtysomething+ person thinks teenagers are rather than how teenagers actually think of themselves. The villain, insofar, as there is one is pretty lame. There’s a few characters, such as the governor or the station administrator or chief botanist, that are so bland, I must wonder why they are even separate characters

The narrative continues to use a single pronoun for all genders (she), and I continue to wonder if the absence of gender in Radch society means everyone is bisexual or if everyone is genetically altered, and Leckie continues to tiptoe around these questions. I went from trying to guess at everyone’s “real gender”, to seeing everyone as vaguely faceless, to seeing everyone as actually women, to sort of settling on everyone looking androgynous (I think this is the closest to Leckie’s vision, but I am not positive). I think the gender thing is also totally overblown when people talk about these books. It’s not really new or inventive. What is far subtler and more effective is the real strength of the book: Breq herself. She is cool, distant, competent, compassionate but no-nonsense, effective, deadly. She runs her own ship. It’s a kind of female POV we don’t get much of. Even though Breq isn’t technically a woman.

This one felt more episodic than the last. It wrapped up only a very narrow plotline — most of the action taking place in Ancillary Sword is a result of whatever is behind the Ghost Gate, a device introduced in this book and a resolution that was never reached. At the pace of one book a year, it’s not too bad. I look forward to the next episode.

Happy Birthday to The Scrying Orb, year 2

happybirthdayA day late anyway.

At the close of year 1, I vowed to better visually design the look and feel of the blog. That didn’t really happen. A few weeks ago, I was browsing the web and saw a blog with the same wordpress theme as mine and thought damn, that looks dated. So I changed the theme to a more modern, clean look. From the theme of twentyten to that of twentyfifteen (!!). The 2012-14 designs were getting a little too overthought w/r/t responsive design and hidden navigation. 2015 went back to functional, but nice to look at.

I also wanted to write about more than books and write articles not specifically tied to reviews. I succeeded, somewhat, on the former goal. I wrote about video games a bunch (and a few movies), but I’m not sure I’m happy with those reviews. It’s harder to sum up a game quickly, especially with an ambiguous audience. How deep to go into minutia? How familiar with game mechanics to assume in tone? Anyway, still working on that.

As for articles not tied to reviews, I failed at that completely. I’ll continue that as a goal for year 3.

In addition, I plan to try writing longer reviews here and there. This won’t change then general pacing of this blog and my reviews, but I have noticed both popular fan and professional reviews occasionally go way in-depth in their reviews (and it can be enlightening). Not something for every time, but for a few pieces that really strike me.

Child of Light (Ubisoft, 2014)

child of light

Child of Light is chasing an aesthetic. A cauldron of beautiful art, tranquil music, and a fairy tale story influenced by Disney and Studio Ghibli classics.

The art is indeed gorgeous and mixed with the subdued orchestral tinkling, the atmosphere of the game emerges with an austere beauty. It is the whimsy that is lacking; the dialogue is all text (no speech), and generally rhymes. There’s sad clowns, mercantile mice, 13 year olds with beards. A city where all inhabitants were turned to crows, a city built upon a giant’s scalp. The stuff of Roald Dahl and Norton Juster, but Phantom Tollbooth this is not. It’s hard to make such wonder so bland, especially when backed by such pretty artwork, but the sad truth is that the writing is just not that good. For a tale relying so heavily on rhyme, the couplets do not flow well at all and require some mental word twisting to work out the rhyme. The characters aren’t particularly charming or worthy of emotional investment.

The game starts poorly. You control a single character, walking around a 2d world that does seem particularly friendly to walking. I almost put the game down. But 30-45 minutes in, the little-girl protagonist, Aurora, gains the ability to fly and the gameplay vastly improves. You increase the size of your party and the enemies increase the size of theirs and it starts to feel like a real game.

The combat in Child of Light is reminiscent of the old Super Nintendo Final Fantasy games. Touching an enemy out in the world swaps to a separate screen where your party engages the enemy in turn-based combat. All characters, friend and foe, show up on a bar called the timeline and their portraits move from left to right, and when they reach 80% of the way to the far right, the player can choose an attack. If the character is attacked in the remaining 20%, they lose their move and are shunted backwards down the timeline. The player can only control 2 characters at a time but can seamlessly swap in dormant party members mid-combat.

It’s pretty fun. On the harder of the two difficulties, fights generally require a strategic approach. The game eventually starts to suffer from repetition as every boss fight is a main beastie with two henchmen and the strategy of carefully killing one, then two, and stabilizing to take down the major enemy works literally every time. The game is short so the repetition does not get too tiresome, but I can’t shake the feeling that a more creative approach could have led to far more varied battles.

All said, the game was pretty if a bit sterile. I miss turn based RPGs, so even if it was far from perfect, I’m thankful this game exists and I stuck it out beyond the flightless first act. And it really was very pretty.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station11In the near future, an epidemic breaks out in eastern Europe — a deadly, highly contagious flu that rapidly kills off most of the population of earth. Survivors scrounge by, holed up in airports and Walmarts. It’s not a terribly innovative premise as far as fiction goes. Yet it feels both comfortable and fresh.

This is in large part because the collapse and subsequent dystopia are not really the focus, or at least not the only focus. Shortly before the flu destroyed North America, an aging actor named Arthur Leander had a heart attack and died on stage while playing the titular role in King Lear. The book weaves back and forth, prior to the virus, after the virus, during the virus, following Arthur or, more often, people with some connection to him. His ex-wives, best friend, minor acquaintances like co-actors and paparazzi. A series of narrative-supported coincidences led several of them to survive the collapse and cluster around Michigan.

The time-shifts and the way the point of view shifts reveal different facets of the story is the meat of the book and feels almost David Mitchell-lite. The character study isn’t exactly deep. Many of the characters aren’t fully realized entities but they are treated kindly by the author and all serve to further the ‘feel’ of the novel. It’s a pleasant feeling, despite the loss of most of mankind. The human legacy that  survives the apocalypse is Shakespeare — some of the main characters belong to a traveling symphony show that regularly perform his plays. Quoting Star Trek: Survival is insufficient is the main theme of the survivors. The story is more about hope than it is about the depravity humans sink to when resources are scarce. There’s wonder and loss for the magical technology of the past as well as awe for the star-speckled sky in a world with no light pollution.

I really enjoyed this book as I was reading it. And I read it very quickly. I still feel like it’s a good book, but I’m a little less plussed having finished it. The pacing/momentum of the story is one of its greatest strengths. So when the end sort of peters out, without any real oomph or narrative glow, it’s a little disappointing. And due to the shallow characters, I feel like I’m already forgetting the book!

Actually, I think this would make a fantastic TV show. About 60% of the way through the book, I was thinking of Station Eleven as a solid first episode: introduce the characters, their world, their plight. But I knew it wasn’t a series and became doubtful it could close satisfactorily (and this was borne out).